Judge Fatigue by Chris Theis

This weekend at Harvard between the round robin and the tournament I judged a total of 23 debates. I did not have a round off until the semi finals. By the end I was exhausted mentally and physically. I bring this up not to complain, though it was terrible, but rather to bring up a dynamic that I believe is under-appreciated by tournament directors and debaters alike.

Judging rounds can be mentally taxing, especially in more competitive, high-powered debates, i.e. the most important ones.  Over the course of a tournament the judging takes its toll, particular taking into account that most judges do not maintain a healthy lifestyle over the course of the tournament.  As a result my ability to effectively evaluate arguments in quarters was nowhere near my ability to do so round one (luckily those late rounds were not very difficult to resolve). I was not alone. Three times in outrounds alone I heard other judges tell warn debaters of their fatigue before the round, or preface their RFD with that information. Also, we have all heard anecdotes about judges falling asleep during prep, or even worse, during speeches.   This is clearly problematic in certain respects.  When fatigued a judge is more likely to misunderstand, misinterpret, or simply miss, arguments. As the tournament drags on and the stakes go up, judging gets worse and bad decisions become more likely.

I think there are a couple of things worth discussing about this.

First, is there anything that tournaments can do to lessen the extent of the problem? Off the top of my head there are a couple of workable solutions:

a. Tournaments could mandate the number of rounds a single judge could be obligated for. For example, if a team needed to cover 6 rounds the tournament could require that two different judges take those rounds. Tournaments would not have to change the number of rounds required per debater just the maximum amount that could be judged by a single person. This would ensure that every judge had a least a few rounds of rest over the course of a tournament and that there would be more judges obligated to cover elimination debates, meaning all else being equal a single judge fewer of those debates.  The obvious issue here is that it would require teams and tournaments to supply more judges. Given that so many teams have trouble finding qualified judges already, this could be a serious problem. Also, the quality of those additional judges is almost certainly going to be worse than the judges they are replacing. Would you rather have a rested B or an exhausted A? I think there is a fair debate to be had on that point. This bug could be somewhat mitigated by trying to give the most highly preferred judges more rounds off earlier in the tournament to ensure they are rested and able to judge more critical debates.

b. Tournaments could more equitably distribute judging assignments. At every tournament there are judges who judge nearly every debate on hand, and on the other hand there are judges who go almost entirely unused because they are not as preferred. Indeed, some teams even take advantage of this fact by purposely bring judges who will not be preferred so that they can cover their obligation while not having to actually give up coaching time to judge.  If tournaments were more willing to use less preferred judges in more circumstances the judges that are normally worked to death would be able to get a least a few rounds off. Again, the problem with this solution is that there is a trade off with judge quality.  The quality problem can be dealt with by packing those judges into meaningless rounds. This is already done at most tournaments to varying degrees. However, at every tournament there are preferred judges judging debates that do not matter, like Sam Duby’s annual 0-4 double 30 showcase at Greenhill. Tournaments know that some of the judges in those meaningless rounds will have students who break so they will be obligated later on, why not replace them with the judge who will not fit anywhere else?

The second thing that should be discussed is if they are aware of the problem what debaters can do to deal with it. Judge fatigue is something that debaters seem to be absolutely oblivious to. Below are a couple of tips to make life easier for your exhausted judge and raise your chances of winning their ballot:

a. Watch the judge. Are they alert and engaged or do they look like all they want in the world is to crawl back to their hotel room and sleep?  Does is look they did not get much sleep or perhaps had a few too many drinks the night before? Take note. The first step in finding a solution is recognizing that there is a problem. If there is a problem do not stop watching the judge. Make sure they are following you. If they look confused, stop and explain. If they look lost, give them more sign posting or time to catch up.

b. Simplify. Instead of going for 6 off or making 12 responses to the standard, how about going for 1 off and making 3 more developed responses?  A tired is less able to sort through an overload of arguments particularly when there are complicated interactions occurring. If you provide a simpler, easier to understand story it is more likely that the judge will be able to construct a coherent ballot story for you. The more complicated the round becomes, the more random the decision of a fatigued judge becomes. Randomness is the enemy of the good debater.

c. Slow down. Fatigue decreases reaction time meaning a judge who is tired will flow and comprehend arguments more slowly than a fully rested judge. If you absolutely must maintain your breakneck pace, then at the very least, make sure that your arguments do not come in rapid-fire succession. A tired judge will not flow or understand blips delivered at full speed, so make arguments longer and increase the time you pause between arguments.

d. Tell a story. I know what you’re thinking. What is this? 1992? Nope this is still important. Debate is a game of persuasion; judges are simply persuaded by different things. While a dynamic speaker compels some judges, others enjoy a substantive or novel argument. However, no matter who they are judges need to be able to explain to themselves why it is they are voting before they make a decision. So over-explain, give status updates and crystallize. I know its not the cool thing to do but the tired judge is a lazy judge, so make sure the reason to vote for you is clearer, even if it is not better than your opponents reasons.

So, what do you think? Is this just the ravings of an exhausted judge? Or is this a real problem? If there is a problem what should tournaments and debaters do to deal with it?